by Alana Roberts
Madeleine L’Engle as a poet doesn’t muddle herself into blah, kneel to politics, or contemplate evil. Yet she will never be considered by such as Harold Bloom to be a first-rate or canonical poet. For one thing, her poetry is flawed. It has virtues, but flaws as well. Not all her word choices are the inevitable choices. In fact, she once began a line with the term, “Aaaaaaargh!” (Perhaps there was an ‘a’ or two more; please don’t make me count!)
These flaws are probably present because, when it came to writing poetry, L’Engle’s method of composition was, scandalously, the irreverent one-off, as she tells her reader in a 1996 Mars Hill Review interview:
ML: Poetry is very different. I’ve written very little poetry since my husband died. Last summer I was traveling in Ireland and Scotland, and I wrote twelve sonnets. They just flowed out. With a novel, I can sit down and write deliberately, but poetry sort of has to come to me. I’m not a terribly good poet.
MHR: How would you define a good poet?
ML: Most of my real poet friends putter around with each poem for weeks on end. I don’t do that. When I write a poem, I just leave it there. If I’ve written a poem, I’ve written a poem.
L’Engle is, of course, best known for her book-length children’s stories in which the science of the modern age turns out to be just another view of the glory of God, and children who love both science and the Lord have mystical-scientific experiences. I’m not trying to be dismissive. Science and the problem of evil—weren’t these the main challenges to poetry in the 20th century? She used fiction to help her readers imagine a way of living that many of us have dimly dreamed of—in which the seemingly competing and conflicting authorities of the old and new world merge, when rightly understood, into a single luminescent meaningful truth. The wife of a playwright and actor, Madeleine has, in her Time Quartet and elsewhere, written the Drama of Us.
I recently read an adult novel of hers that has nothing to do with science whatsoever. Love Letters is a book about two women—one, a wife, and the other, a nun—who love truly but unwisely, who are damaged in the experience, and who struggle through painful desperation to a transformed will that allows them to go on loving. This novel is more predictive of the subject matter of L’Engle’s poetry than the children’s stories are. Hardly naive, hardly tripping about a perennial spring-time world of the imagination in rose-colored glasses, L’Engle is painfully aware of the questions that have polluted the poetic well.
Her poetry is collected in a single volume, called The Ordering of Love. The title is taken from a line in one of her poems—and I feel almost certain that this vision of “ordered love” was a conscious distinction to the “free love”—the disordered love, in fact—of the sexual revolution going on around her.
For Madeleine, ordered love was more passionate than dissipated love could ever be. In one poem, she pictures herself at the hospital bedside of her dying husband. “This, too, is passion,” she says, referring to the restraint with which she touches his wrist as lightly as possible to avoid causing him more pain than he is already going through.
(Is this a deeper, more mature echo of John Keat’s prayer of romantic restraint?
O let me for one moment touch her wrist
Let me one moment to her breathing list;
And as she leaves me may she often turn
Her fair eyes looking through her locks auburne
Or do cultured minds find the patterns, the tracks in the road, not knowing who left them?)
This, too, is passion, the so gentle touch
Of fingertip to wrist, to shoulder, face.
More would cause pain, and oh I would not such
Anguish awake, I sit here in my place
Beside this strange white bed, with IV poles
Holding snaked lines that feed into your arms.
A limbo, this, a waiting room for souls
Ready to leave the flesh with all its charms—
And I am still in thrall to human love,
To touch, to whisper, bring from you a smile.
Passion remains. What am I thinking of?
How can I let it go? Hold on a while.
But oh, my love, must I now love you so
That my love’s passion has to let you go?
Coherent thought—the hallmark of the Christian mentality (which, after all, fostered science)—is also characteristic of L’Engle’s poetry. She has no existential fault lines to reflect in jagged phrases and interrupted syntax. Her mental scrapbook held no black armband left over from God’s funeral for she was not a mourner at that event—the world, in her imagination, was wounded to the quick, but it was still, from top to bottom, whole.
Nor was she a deeply subtle writer, like Charles Williams (whose poetry is often so obscure that readers are advised to read for the joy of the words and not worry too much, at first, about understanding it). There’s little to nothing in L’Engle you won’t understand. She never claims a place among the innovators, the stars, or the monoliths of English literature. She is simply doing what those innovators, stars, and monoliths have made possible—talking to us in poetry; communicating in a way that is not limited by the tendencies of prose. Being a little more human for it.
Many of her poems are biblical dramas—fictionification of stories and characters from the Bible. In these little poetic dramas, she doesn’t venerate the biblical saints—there’s another place and time for that. Instead, she renders them as one of ourselves—people trying to believe in God in the face of evil or cultural unbelief. Perhaps the best example of this kind of poem is her little gem about Jephthah’s daughter—who, scandalously, was sacrificed to Israel’s God when her father swore an oath that the first person he met coming from his house on return from battle would die in the Lord’s honor. How many of you fathers have returned home from work to see your delighted children flying out the door to greet you? Is there anything better? False religiosity pollute that?—how can it be borne?
Madeleine doesn’t turn the page of her Bible to seek a more amenable subject for her poem:
Take me beyond the grasp of nights and days.
Death leads me on to neither time, nor place.
Even in the dark can come El’s grace.
Oh, God. Oh, El. The darkness, El, the cold
between the stars. There’s nothing here to hold.
So am I dead? This endless silence roars
and flings me with the tide on golden shores.
Who is this man, here, eating fish, and bread?
How can I see and hear him, being dead? He hands me broken bread and I am broken.
I do not understand the word that he has spoken.
But he is waiting for me, bright as a star.
“It’s all right, child,” he says. “You are. You are.”
Ah. Maybe there’s something of the Time Quartet author there, after all.
Not all her struggling-faith poems are fictional, either. Sometimes she addresses directly her own struggle.
Nietzsche and Marx—and more recently, Barack Obama and scads of snarky anonymous internet commentators—assure us that we are religious merely as a way of coping with a reality we can’t handle. It’s just our pain drug. (They do not understand the positive attraction—the irreplaceable joy—of worship.) Madeleine tells a different story—the story we all know from inside the believing experience. Here, though we do not contemplate evil and we try not to incorporate its vagaries into our own life-systems, our very sensitivity to goodness renders us excruciatingly sensitive to evil, as well. No less than Adorno, we are struck time and again with the sheer incongruity, the antithesis between kindliness and suffering, between comfort and pain, between giving and stealing, prosperity and want, joy and grief, agony and bliss. The good, one feels, needs to be very good indeed. And sometimes when one looks at the bad—
“It would be easier to be an atheist; it is the simple way out.”
The poem is “Pharoah’s Cross.” The poem’s persona is, more or less, Madeleine.
“Who is this wild cherubim who whirls the flaming sword / ‘twixt the door to the house of atheism and me?”
Next she describes God, using the words of Exodus, sending evil angels, killing Egyptians, hardening Pharaoh’s heart to keep him from repenting. (“This worries me, Lord.”) But she turns back from this kind of musing to a more twentieth-century way of thinking about it all (and why not? Modernity is our time, too. Let there be a modern Christianity as well as an ancient and a medieval Christianity).
All these things are but stories told about you by fallen man,
Part of the story (for your ways are not our ways)
But not the whole story. You are our author …
And winds up,
… you came to us as one of us
And lived with us and died for us and descended
Into hell for us
And burst out into life for us:
Do you now hold Pharaoh in your arms?
Where philosophy stops short of an answer, Christ remembered stands in the gap.
The writing fails to be thoroughly poetic or original. That bit about God’s ways not being our ways has done a lot of duty and stretched to cover a lot of broken windows in the house of faith. But the poem is not exactly meant as an answer, either—it’s versified drama, a portrayal of the search for the answer. It’s exactly like the sort of stab we take at the problem—the stab that embodies the faith we feel and the vagueness of our unschooled attempts to clothe that inner movement in words. It’s the Poetry of Us.
And like us, it was not Madeleine L’Engle’s destiny to be beaten down by evil to the point that she could no longer rejoice in goodness. In one poem she mourns the suffering:
I cannot pray for all the little ones with bellies bloated by starvation in India;
for all the angry Africans striving to be separate in a world struggling for wholeness;
for all the young Chinese men and women taught that hatred and killing are good and compassion evil;
or even all the frightened people in my own city looking for truth in pot or acid.
Here I am
and the ugly man with beery breath beside me reminds me that it is not my
prayers that waken your concern, my Lord;
my prayers, my intercessions are not to ask for your love
for all your lost and lonely ones,
your sick and sinning souls,
but mine, my love, my acceptance of your love.
Your love for the woman sticking her umbrella and her expensive parcels into my ribs and snarling, “Why don’t you watch where you’re going?”
Your love for the long-haired, gum-chewing boy who shoves the old lady aside to grab a seat,
Your love for me, too, too tired to look with love,
too tired to look at Love, at you, in every person on the bus. Expand my love, Lord, so I can help to bear the pain.
But she responds with a seeking for love, not a bitter shrug or raging or sneering at the life that dares to go on living while others suffer.
And in another poem, her rising contemplation of time and its mysteries in the light of Christ’s incarnation and resurrection bestows on her a Christmas innocence that can only be expressed in delighted rhymes that fly thick and fast, in a merry brief meter that skips and runs:
LET US VIEW WITH JOY AND MIRTH
Let us view with joy and mirth
All the clocks upon the earth
Holding time with busy tocking
Ticking booming clanging clocking
Anxiously unraveling Time’s traveling
Through the stars and winds and tides.
Who can tell where time abides?
Foolish clocks, all time was broken
When that first great Word was spoken.
Cease we now this silly fleeing
From earth’s time, for time’s a being
And adoring Bows before him Who upon the throne is seated.
Time, defeated, wins, is greeted.
Clocks know not time’s loving wonder
Day above as night swings under,
Turning always to the son,
Time’s begun, is done, does run
Singing warning Of the morning
Time, mass, space, a mystery Of eternal trinity.
Time needs make no poor apology
For bursting forth from man’s chronology
Laughs in glee as human hours
Dance before the heavenly powers.
Because the Son
Swiftly calls the coming light
That will end the far-spent night.
When you pay attention to the ideas, to the invocations, there’s a window to heaven there. Time as a being who is joyfully mastered by Christ—what a wonderful mythopoeic idea.
When you pay attention to the meter, on the other hand, you find many occasions of thickness where there ought to be thinness, and vice versa. The rhyme of “apology” and “chronology” is a particularly objectionable stumble in the meter. Yet the poem without those words would be impoverished. I call such dilemmas “bright blots.” Blots have to be evaluated in light of the surrounding virtues in a poem.
A poem that is all blots becomes tedious.
But many critics of poetry, needing to fill out their repertoire of condemnation in order to demonstrate their subtle and discriminating perception, have a no-tolerance policy for bright blots. It amounts to a sentence of annihilation for the poet, as poet, who is less than perfect (or a seeming proof that most people simply shouldn’t attempt meter and rhyme).
All that beautiful delicate virtue, coldly forbidden to exert itself, to exist, lest some mistake should wander onto the scene. What do they think a world would be like in which all the virtues have been stricken from the record lest some vice register its presence?
Madeleine felt the same way.
PEOPLE IN GLASS HOUSES
I build my house of shining glass
delicate. The wind blows
Sets my rooms to singing.
The sun’s bright rays
are not held back
but pour their radiance through the rooms
in sparkles of delight.
And what, you ask, of rain
that leaves blurred muddy streaks
across translucent purity?
What, you ask,
of the throwers of stones?
Glass shatters, breaks,
sharp fragments pierce my flesh,
darken with blood.
The wind tinkles brittle splinters
of shivered crystal.
The stones crash through.
But never mind. My house
My lovely shining
fragile broken house
is filled with flowers
and founded on a rock.
If I had been her editor, I would have advised replacing phrases like, “the sun’s bright rays” and “sparkles of delight.” (Something more unique, more expressive, could have been found, surely?) Still, the poem in whole speaks, doesn’t it? I wouldn’t like to un-hear it. That flash of insight about how a glass house would sing in the wind—that’s the most genuinely poetical moment.
For Madeleine, one could both grieve evil (while trying to work for Love) and still retain the joy and innocence that poetry is most naturally vessel to. Far from being a cowering naivety, this innocence shelters in the shadow of something which has set itself against evil, as Adam the firstcreated man discovers in L’Engle’s poem, ‘Great and Holy Saturday.’ What is set against evil is immensely robust. It is strong—so strong that it reclaims the ultimate evil, death, and converts it to an inexpressible mystery of reasserted being: a tailor, to proffer my own metaphor, stitching robes of immortality.
Here we join Adam in Hades, accustomed and resigned to a shadowy existence where time seems neither long nor short because nothing happens:
The sound, when it came, was louder than thunder,
louder than the falling of a mountain,
louder than the tidal wave crashing down the city walls,
stone splitting, falling, smashing.
The light was brutal against my shaded eyes,
blinding me with brilliance. I was thousands
of years unaccustomed to the glory.
. . .
The crossed gates were trampled by his powerful feet
and I was wrenched through the chasm
as through the eye of the hurricane.
And then—O God—he crushed me
in his fierce embrace. Flesh entered flesh;
bone, bone. Thus did I die, at last.
Thus was I born.
Two Adams became one.
And in the glory Adam was.
Nay, Adam is.
The brotherliness and wholeness of Christ in this vision is both original and orthodox. His intense and triumphant engagement with the powers of creation is vitally Christian in a way that satisfies both ancient and modern hungers. The pace is dramatic. The vision of zoetic, thanatopic and cosmological mystery, informed both by primal splendor and by scientific awe, is rightly resolved in the flesh of Jesus – the safe harbor against his chest. This resolution invokes the secret well of joy in Christianity: the incarnation of Christ which places the gateway to all worlds in the pure and all-loving heart of the Man in whom all men are anchored to being and humanity and personhood.
It also reveals and sparks a movement within our spirits and minds—a movement we’ve enacted before and must enact over and over again—the flight through all trouble and difficulty and loss, home to Jesus. To Jesus, in whose flesh our own deaths are already accomplished, are housed and metamorphosized to wild adventure and ever-life.
The subject cannot be exhausted.
And while we confess that a greater poet might have made something greater of it, we also aver that the vision is a gift; and one must make something of one’s gifts.
If one took the poems literally, this one would seem to present a view incompatible with the image of Jephthah’s daughter after death, cast on the shore of Lake Tiberias. (What happens to people after death, we are asked… and sometimes forget to examine the assumption that we will confront a one-size-fits-all system, such as human government produces.) Be that as it may, the poems are united by the consolation in which they sum up the colossal limits set like cliffs around the sea of evil:
“You are, child, you are.”
“Do you now hold Pharaoh in your arms?”
Can he lose even one?
Madeleine L’Engle’s vision is distinct, original, and poetic enough to be remembered—to be contributory to a fully-formed English-speaking Christian consciousness. She is a literary resource for that collection of thoughts and feelings that we thoughtful modern Christians are forming to set afloat on the stream of tradition—the questions and answers, the sentiments and insights called forth by trying to live as Christians in modernity—the help future generations will need to remain connected, back through us and through history, to the foundations of our faith.
At Madeleine L’Engle’s invitation, we contemplate a goodness that is not a set of tortured rules futilely binding a wildly yearning nature. Here we find the goodness we know—the one that can be delicate and minor, or thunderous and cosmic; that never does harm, but sometimes hurts “in a good way”—the one that both rests and rises with all the force we find in our hearts and more, which in the roots of it is being, is “I am;” which is “I AM THAT I AM.”
If our thoughts are our lives then, Brethren, Madeleine L’Engle invites us to think on these things.
Alana Roberts blogs on poetry, culture, and Christian faith at Curmudgeon in Training.